According to the numbers, home ice in the NHL isn’t that big a deal, and I’m never been one to argue with hard data. However, playing in the desert does seem to mean something to the Vegas Golden Knights, who beat the Jets 4-2 Wednesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. The Knights, who were 29-10-2 at home in the regular season compared to 22-14-5 away, picked up their fifth home win of the playoffs, with only one (overtime) loss in Vegas so far this postseason.
The “Vegas Flu” has become a well-known affliction for visiting teams in the Knights’ inaugural season, though there’s not much consensus around the causes. One plausible explanation, to me at least, is that this Vegas crowd can be a complete wrecking ball of noise in their team’s biggest moments. From the pregame show to the very end, the Knights’ arena sounded genuinely intimidating throughout this game (and their previous ones this postseason), and while maybe that didn’t matter to a bunch of pros like the Jets, thousands of loud and passionate fans certainly couldn’t have hurt the Knights’ chances. I was one of the doubters at the start of their existence, but Game 3 made it beyond undeniable: Vegas is a hockey town.
There’s plenty of credit to spread all over the Knights’ roster for their crowd’s enthusiasm in Game 3. James Neal, who had been stuck in a bit of a slump for the past couple months, took a knock from Dustin Byfuglien in the first but returned to score his team’s second goal of the night and assist on the eventual game-winner. And stalwart goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 33 saves tonight, turned absolutely spectacular with a one-goal lead down the stretch.
But if there’s one man to credit for the beginning-to-end party that was Game 3 in Vegas, it’s Jonathan Marchessault, an undrafted late bloomer plucked from the Florida Panthers who’s leading the Knights in both goals and points this postseason. After that invigorating, only-in-Vegas performance before the puck dropped, Marchessault was the scorer who didn’t let the fans calm back down. It took just 35 seconds for him to light the lamp with his now-signature backhand —the same way he scored twice in Game 2—and turn the crowd wild.
And while Neal and Fleury did much of the work that kept the Jets at bay for the rest of the game—Neal’s goal in particular, coming just 12 seconds after Mark Scheifele’s 1-1 equalizer, was especially important for maintaining momentum—Marchessault once again showed up to put the capper on the night. With three seconds to go, he got the not-entirely-necessary empty net goal to ensure the Knights didn’t end the game on the defensive, and gave the fans one more reason to go wild before they went home.
Whether he’s silencing Winnipeg crowds or galvanizing Vegas ones, Jonathan Marchessault controls this series. With William Karlsson relatively silent the past few games, Marchessault has emerged as the offensive leader of the Golden Knights, and he’s absolutely able to handle that pressure. This is the ride he pulled up in tonight, for god’s sake.
That is the car of a player who owns Las Vegas.